A series of attacks on commercial vessels transiting the Red Sea and retaliatory strikes on Houthi rebel targets in Yemen have raised concerns that the simmering conflict could spiral into a wider conflagration involving the United States, Iran, and other regional actors.
Houthis Step Up Attacks In Red Sea As Biden Admin Pursues Diplomacy
The recent flare up began on January 10th when Houthi forces launched an explosives-laden drone at a Liberian-flagged oil tanker off the coast of Yemen, causing minor damage. This was followed by additional attempted strikes on January 13th against a Saudi warship and other commercial vessels.
While no group claimed responsibility, U.S. officials attributed the attacks to Houthi rebels that have been fighting a years-long civil war against the internationally recognized government backed by a Saudi-led coalition. The uptick in maritime attacks appears aimed at pressuring the coalition, as well as impacting global energy prices and shipping through the vital Red Sea corridor.
The rebel faction known formally as Ansar Allah swept down from their northern strongholds in 2014, toppling the Yemeni government led by President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The conflict has since morphed into a bloody stalemate that has killed over 150,000 people according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), with the Houthis controlling much of the north and the Saudi-backed coalition holding the south.
|Fatalities In Yemen Conflict
|Over 150,000 total reported fatalities from January 2015 – January 2024
|60% civilian deaths
|75,000 killed by “indirect causes” like starvation and disease
The grinding war has triggered humanitarian disaster, with some 19 million Yemenis, about two-thirds of the population, requiring assistance. The economy has been decimated and people face famine-like conditions in what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
American support for the Saudi coalition through arms sales, targeting information, and refueling support for bomber aircraft has made the U.S. complicit in civilian casualties according to rights groups. President Biden announced an end to offensive support upon taking office in January 2021, part of a bid to conclude the Yemen war and refocus policy on shoring up the faltering 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
U.S. Launches Defensive Strikes As Attacks Continue
After the January 13th attempted strikes on coalition vessels, CENTCOM commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla authorized defensive strikes on three Houthi coastal defense sites on January 14th. The limited strikes were aimed at degraded Houthi capabilities and defending freedom of navigation but failed to deter further attacks.
On January 15th Houthi forces fired cruise missiles at a Marshall Islands-flagged chemical tanker off the Yemeni port of Hodeidah, starting fires on board. The following day they targeted a Cyprus-flagged vessel with suicide drones. Additional strikes were reported on January 17th and 18th, indicating undeterred rebel capabilities and willingness to continue attacks.
Facing pressure from Saudi Arabia, maritime industry groups, and congressional hawks, the White House approved additional retaliation. On January 18th U.S. warplanes conducted two more waves of airstrikes targeting Houthi missile production, storage, launch, and logistics facilities.
However rebel forces remained defiant, with a Houthi official telling Reuters “We will not hesitate to hit back excessively hard if they continue their aggression…Biden should stop this silly game.”
Missile Parts Shipment Intercepted As Iran Role Scrutinized
The uptick in sophisticated Houthi attacks has refocused attention on the rebel group’s relationship with Iran, their main international sponsor. U.S. forces on January 16th raided a small boat in the Arabian Sea, seizing key missile components including Iranian-made propellent, missile thrusters and advanced weapon parts hidden among bags of fertilizer.
American officials claimed the shipment was bound for Houthi-controlled territory, providing concrete evidence of Iran’s continued material support for the Yemeni rebels. Other equipment like the drones used in the Red Sea appear identical to Iranian designs, though Tehran denies direct involvement.
Experts see the maritime attacks as part of a regional pressure campaign orchestrated by Iran aimed at advancing its interests on multiple fronts.
“We assess IRGC (Iran's Revolutionary Guards) advisers are providing Houthi units with training and advice, helping them produce and deploy sophisticated weapons” an anonymous intelligence official told reporters. With talks stalled on reviving the nuclear deal, confrontation with western forces allows Tehran to gain leverage in negotiations.
Escalatory Cycle Continues – “We’re Not Going To Stop” Vows Biden
Despite several rounds of retaliatory strikes, the Houthis continue targeting commercial and military vessels transitting the Red Sea, endangering global shipping. On January 19th Houthi forces fired additional cruise missiles at the Marshal Islands-flagged tanker Miltiades near the Yemeni port of Midi. The projectiles reportedly landed harmlessly in the sea, causing no damage or disruption to the vessel.
President Biden acknowledged that U.S. strikes have so far failed to halt Houthi capabilities or deter further maritime attacks. But he remains committed to defensive actions, warning “We’re not going to stop. We’re going to continue to attempt to take them out whenever we can find them.”
With both sides seemingly committed to retaliation, fears grow that situation could spiral into an open conflict drawing in regional powers. Any direct American clashes with Iranian personnel or the sinking of a large commercial vessel could have catastrophic impacts globally. Continued defiance from the Houthis also risks fracturing the administration’s attempt to conclude peace talks and exiting the quagmire conflict.
Broader Mideast Tensions Fan Instability
Meanwhile the shadow war between Israel and Iranian proxy forces threatens to ignite the tinderbox Middle East. A series of retaliatory strikes in recent days has seen missiles fall near a U.S. consulate in Iraq, an oil tanker drone attack blamed on Iran, and Israeli air raids into Syria.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has pledged retaliation for repeated Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria. Referencing the U.S. confrontation with Iran and its Houthi partners, Nasrallah declared Israel “should be very worried about the developments in the region.” Alongside the Houthi attacks, the risk of miscalculation triggering open warfare between Iran and the West continues to grow.
International Community Calls For Restraint, Return To Negotiations
With the conflict threatening vital transportation networks like the Suez Canal, maritime industry leaders have called for increased naval escort operations and a de-escalation of tensions. The head of the Suez Canal Authority warned that “any unexpected development anywhere around the world can make an impact on us.”
Diplomatic efforts may provide the only off-ramp to avoid outright confrontation between the Houthis, its backers, and western forces. United Nations special envoy Hans Grundberg continues shuttle diplomacy between factions to build confidence and create space for eventual Houthi-government negotiations.
Some analyst like the International Crisis Group have recommended avoiding direct U.S. strikes on the rebels, instead increasing support to Gulf State partners for defensive measures. They argue that American retaliation risks shifting the conflict from a civil war frame towards a proxy battle with Iran. That could diminish prospects to resolve inter-Yemeni issues and increase the chances of regional conflagration.
With rebel leaders calling for mass demonstrations and work stoppages, the path towards de-escalation remains unclear. Continued defiance despite U.S. airstrikes suggest the Houthis feel emboldened by Iranian support to keep up pressure. For now an uneasy standoff remains, with the Biden administration trying to thread the needle between defending freedom of navigation while avoiding outright war. The coming days will prove crucial towards determining whether diplomacy can prevail or the Middle East will once again slide towards expanded conflict.
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